Sunday, January 25, 2015

Expat lessons from our return trip home

How could this holiday recap be any more timely?

Perhaps if it were written weeks ago. Nevertheless, I'll soldier on. Besides, you were bored by waded through all those other people's holiday stories a fortnight ago. This recap will seem fresh and new.

{Ed.'s note: Lame justifications, aisle one.}

Christmas fair at George Square in Glasgow
The Christmas fair at George Square in Glasgow, with the City Chambers as backdrop.
Why is this recap so damn late?

Well, it was a vacation, after all. I've been slow to get back into the blogging groove. Photos needed uploading and editing. And then my iPhoto crashed (not the first time); got somewhat restored; and now taunts me with a hideous gobbledygook of disorganization. Tens of thousands of photos were jumbled and albums were lost. To top it off, our internet connection has been periodically AWOL (not the first time).

{Ed.'s note: [Yawn.] Lame excuses, aisle two.}

Lesson 1: Working in Europe provides oodles of vacation days.

Counting travel time, our trip back to the States lasted 24 days. Of those 24, eight were weekend days, four were public holidays, and three were employer-provided days off. Kate thus took off nine days of work.

In the U.S., taking nine vacation days would eat up most of a worker's yearly allotment. Unlike most of the world, the U.S. has no federally-mandated minimum number of vacation days. Nor does the U.S. have any federally-mandated public holidays (i.e., days off work), though most employers give employees days off for holidays or a compensatory day if the employee works on a holiday. On average, most U.S. employers choose to provide between 10 and 15 days per year, with perhaps additional days for long-term employees.

In the E.U., by contrast, all member states must provide full-time workers with at least 20 paid vacation days per year. Many European countries provide more time. The U.K. requires that workers receive a minimum of 28 vacation days, plus eight public holidays (nine in Scotland). Kate's employer, a university, provides an additional three days during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Christmas gifts for the wee one
Christmas in North Carolina.
So when Kate took off nine days in December to travel back to the U.S., it didn't decimate her vacation time for the year. She still had 19 days earlier in the year for vacation. As it was, she didn't even use all of her vacation and carried over a few days into this year.

The lack of vacation time in the U.S. is a significant disincentive for us to someday abandon expat life and live again in the States. Give up two or three weeks of vacation time per year? That's cutting vacation time in half. It's not a necessarily a dealbreaker, though with a few more years under this system it might become one.

Lesson 2: We miss people a lot more than we miss places.

On our return trip home, the first stop was a long-awaited weekend visit to see friends in New York. Two friends (and their wee one, Molly) live in Scarsdale, outside New York City. They hosted us and two of our other friends (and their wee one, William) who live in Boston. Our happy nontet hung out all weekend in and around the house. We were joined for a quick evening visit by two other friends (and wee one, Sam) who live in NYC, and a third friend who was back from London visiting family in New York.
Boneheadedly Strangely, I didn't take a single photo the entire weekend. Here, Trish reads to Jackson and her wee one, William.
The other wee one, Molly. These two photos are courtesy of William's dad.
Before the trip, we had pondered making a foray into the City to show Jackson a few touristy things, such as the Statue of Liberty. We realized, however, that an expedition downtown with three toddlers would inevitably cut into our quality visiting time. Traveling in multiple cars, herding and placating the little ones, keeping everyone warm and fed — we would be busy, but in a way that detracted instead of enhanced our time with everyone.

Kristen, Stephen, and Nicholas around the dinner table
Is Kristen pregnant, or did she just eat a really big dinner?
After eighteen months away — and even longer since we had seen all of these folks — the weekend was just what we were craving during our expat lives: pure visiting time with people we missed. Expat life leaves you bereft of family and friends for long stretches. Your social circle is radically altered. You find yourself missing old colleagues and bosses; neighbors and their pets; former professors and mentors; even check-out clerks and baristas.

Phone calls, emails, texts, blogs {Ed.'s note: Nice subtle plug.}, Facebook, Skype, and Facetime are fabulous tools to stay connected. But none of them can truly substitute for a face-to-face conversation. Nothing beats being in the same room, around the same table, sharing a meal or a beer.

You can't hug an email.

Grampa Bill and Jackson
Jackson hugs Grampa Bill.
Jackson and Nana
Nana and Jackson explore at Marbles Kids Museum.
As for the locations and places we've left behind . . . no big whoop. It was nice to peek into my old office at work. I enjoyed the familiarity of driving around Raleigh, a city I know well, and had fun spotting little changes that had sprung up over eighteen months. Perhaps if I had a Scarlett O'Hara-ish attachment to a house or property, I'd feel some pangs of longing. Maybe if we had lived in a truly distinctive city, like New Orleans, with its own culture and vibe and history and music, I'd be aching for the place. Would I have been thrilled to go to another Durham Bulls baseball game or a Duke basketball game? Of course. Missing those teams, however, isn't the true draw.

Group photo
Posing with our friends Kristen and Stephen (and rear-facing Nicholas). Too many snapping cameras meant too many places to look.
For us, the ties to America are about relationships, not municipalities. About family and friends, not restaurants and sports teams. About people, not places.

Lesson 3: You won't have time to see everyone.

In New York, there were many more old friends whom we could have tried to see that weekend, but the logistics of trying to see even more people over that short time would have devalued the time we spent with the friends we did see.

1912 dance card
1912 dance card courtesy of Wikipedia.
The second stop on our trip was in North Carolina, where we lived for roughly eleven years before moving to Scotland. Even with eight full days and two partial days, there were too many people to see with too little time. Our dance card overflowed. It still eats at me that we only saw about half of the folks we wanted to visit.

It wasn't a matter of setting tiers or hierarchies of folks we wanted to see. For some things, it was a question of our own professional commitments, such as finding the most convenient times to see our old coworkers, or my need to complete two full days of continuing legal education credits. In other cases, folks were away on their own vacations. At some points, the simple distance across multiple towns and counties proved too daunting to make time in already-packed days, much less worrying about meal times and nap times.

As it was, we flitted here and there for lunches and dinners and playdates. In the final analysis, we needed to (try to) leave enough time for the most important visit: family time with Nana and Grampa Bill. Seeing our families was, naturally, the main impetus for the trip.

We made a valiant effort, but we couldn't fit it all in. Not even close. It's one of the consequences of having moved far away and then returning for a visit. You know you can't do everything or see everyone. Circumstance and happenstance play a large role in how things play out. In the end, you can only sigh and resolve to see all the others on the next trip back.

Lesson 4: Readjusting to the homeland is not a challenge.

I suppose if we were gone a very long time and living in a significantly different culture amidst an unfamiliar language, then readjusting to the States on a return home would be a shock. Over time, both you and your home country change, usually in incremental accretions which only gradually lead to significant divergences. Eventually, possibly, you could encounter some genuine culture shock returning home.

Let's face it, though. That ain't likely. Particularly in the interconnected world we live in; with global news and dozens of ways of staying in touch; with converging norms and social mores; with shared movies, television, music, sports, literature, fashion, internet memes, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and on and on; with all that, you'd have to work hard at isolating yourself to not know about life in your home country.

A visit to Krispy Kreme
A classic North Carolina delicacy.
We were gone eighteen months and living in a U.K. culture quite similar to America's. We came back to pretty much the same place we left. For sure, some of our old synapses were suddenly refiring. Ugly strip malls. Congestion. Fast food joints at every turn. Same music styles, same clothes, same left-wing and right-wing news channels, etc. Even if a decade (or two? or three?) had passed before we returned, there would be a heckuva lot more that had stayed the same than had changed.

It took only a few minutes to get used to driving on the right side of the road instead of the left. We had some food cravings to satisfy, but once those itches were scratched they largely faded from our consciousness. I enjoyed being able to watch college football bowl games with people who actually care about the sport. The supermarkets and Super Targets stocked all the same products as ever.

Christmas lights, music, trees, television specials = the same as always. We celebrated New Year's Eve in Colorado pretty much the same way 'Muricans have been for decades, with drinks and dance music and counting down the televised ball drop in Times Square.

Kate with her sister Tracy and our niece, Macie. Kate is a selfie master.
Tracy's husband, John, and I recline on the couch.
Happy New Year! Kate's other sister, Rachel; her husband, David; and John all photobomb our lovely selfie.
"Readjust" is much too strong a word. It's more like sliding into an old pair of slippers, comfy and reassuring.

Lesson 5: Gas is much cheaper in the U.S. than in Europe.


Not a newsflash, I know. But still.

The current cost of petrol (i.e., gasoline) in Glasgow averages to about £1.07 per liter. Roughly 3.8 liters equals a gallon, so a gallon of petrol here costs approximately £4.07. At today's exchange rate, a British pound equals $1.50.

Gas price in Colorado
December gas price in Colorado.
Thus, a gallon of gasoline in Glasgow currently costs $6.11.

Compare that to the average U.S. cost of gasoline. In the majority of states, gas costs $2.00 or less. In the lower 48 states, the highest cost is in California, at $2.46. For the further-flung states, Alaska averages $2.69 and Hawaii averages $3.27.

On our trip back, we bought gas in Colorado for $1.91. Brought a smile to my face.

Most of the time — except for our long road trips — the cost of petrol here in Scotland is easier to accept because we use so much less than we did in the States. We're down from two cars to one. Kate walks to work and I don't need to commute. We can walk to shops and restaurants more easily. I'd guess our gasoline consumption has dropped by nearly two thirds.

Thank goodness.

Lesson 6: Red-eye flights with a toddler are a crapshoot.

Our three year old is a champion traveler. He's flown dozens of times. We work hard during flights to keep him well-fed and happily occupied.

A red-eye flight, though, is pushing it. Our flight back to Scotland from Colorado started at 4:30 pm and took 7-8 hours to fly to Reykjavik, Iceland. We had an hour and a half layover, and then a two hour flight to Glasgow. When we arrived in Glasgow, to our bodies it felt like 3:30 in the morning. Moreover, few people on the first flight were tired enough to fall asleep. Couple that with drink and food service, trash collections, and back-of-the-seat video screens, there was more than enough activity to keep a toddler awake.

Are you sensing where this story is going? We were headed toward something that looked like this:

Unhappy toddler
Our niece, Rosalie, had a momentary meltdown on Christmas. (It's not fair to use this photo, since she's generally so happy.)
First, Jackson didn't want to even consider the idea of sleeping on the flight. Eventually we coerced cajoled him into lying down, but then he'd pop back up again. Then he was fidgety. Then he was genuinely tired, but couldn't get comfortable. We were getting exasperated, which didn't help matters. Then he started whining and pouting, kicking out in frustration. His whining went on and on, growing more desperate. He couldn't control himself any longer. Epic meltdown in three, two, . . .

And then he fell asleep. Not for long; only about an hour and a half. The crisis, however, had passed.

In our game of craps, we somehow rolled a seven.

This was all luck, and perhaps a bit of biological need for sleep. It was not, let me emphasize, a parenting win. We were powerless. He was the geyser about to burst, the earthquake ready for destruction.

The red-eye flights were hard for us adults to handle gracefully. For a toddler, it was a 50-50 proposition to remain calm, at best. Make that 80-20. Or 90-10. Whatever the odds, we pushed them and somehow squeaked by.

My advice: don't roll the dice this way. Find a better flight time. We will, next time.

Lesson 7: Bring additional bags or buy more luggage, but whatever you do, don't mail your stuff back.

You'll feel awkward and embarrassed and foolish to roll up to the airport counter with all that luggage. You likely will need a cart. On our flight back this time, we used two carts to waddle up to the ticket desk. Jackson perched atop one cart, the sultan on his sedan chair. Your suave expat aura is kinda blown when you're wheezing and cursing how much crap that kid got at Christmas.

Some will sneer at you, holding their single carry-on bag. But you'll do it anyway. All those bags — even if it costs you an extra-bag fee — is much, much, MUCH cheaper than mailing stuff back.

{Ed.'s note: / Because you know I'm all about those bags / 'Bout those bags / No mailing / }

Lots of luggage at the airport
Exhausted boy after his red-eye flights awaits yet more luggage. Still to be collected were another suitcase and another large box.
No matter what, don't mail things back. The mailing costs are high, especially if you want to track your stuff or see it within a month's time. How much do you really want those books, or jeans, or pepper jelly? It'll likely cost hundreds of dollars to ship back some Christmas presents.

And then you'll pay again when you receive it.

Say what?

I speak the truth. For example, the U.K., like many countries, taxes you heavily for anything you bought overseas and send back. They sock you with VAT taxes, customs taxes, excise taxes. They even tack on a "handling fee" for opening up your packages, rifling through them, and then waiting for you to pay their extortion fees before giving you your lawfully bought items.

But you're taxed on more than just what you bought yourself. Last year, we paid $280 to receive gifts that other people sent us for Christmas. That's right, we paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of receiving gifts from people who had already spent hundreds of dollars mailing them to us.

How much did we pay to lug things back on the airplane?

Nothing. On most international flights, each traveler is entitled to two checked bags for free. We traveled to the States with three large suitcases and a car seat. We came back with four large suitcases (we had packed one bag inside the other on the way to the States), as well as two boxes and the car seat. In addition, each traveler on international flights is typically allowed a carry-on bag and a "personal item" (i.e., a smaller bag, like a purse or camera case). So we had a total of five carry-ons and personal items. All told, we brought back ten bags, two boxes, a car seat, and a limp toddler. Free.

Heavy luggage  vs.  mailing costs, taxes, and fees.

No contest.

Lesson 8: When you live overseas, you might see some family members more than when you lived back home.

During our time in North Carolina, my parents lived close by and we saw them often. They've visited us in Scotland multiple times already, and we hope they'll have some lengthy stays this year. But moving overseas has necessarily meant less frequent visits.

In Paris with Notre Dame Cathedral as backdrop
Fewer visits, but at least I can lure Nana and Grampa Bill to places like Paris.
By contrast, Kate's family lives out west, in Colorado and Idaho. When we lived in North Carolina, we didn't see them all that often, sometimes not even once a year. Remember our Lesson 1, above, regarding the lack of vacation time in the U.S.?

Now that we're in Scotland, we've seen them more. Much more. Both of Kate's sisters and their families have come to visit for two or three weeks at a time. The next trip is scheduled for this coming summer. Their mother, whom we call Grammar, stayed with us in Glasgow for a couple of months, and we expect more long visits in the coming months.

Aboard HRM Yacht Brittania
Two summers ago, aboard Her Royal Majesty's Yacht Brittania with Kate's sister, Tracy; her husband John; their kids Garrick and Macie; and Grammar.
Exploring the Clava Cairns
Last summer with Kate's sister, Rachel, and her husband, David, at the Clava Cairns prehistoric site in northeastern Scotland.
So living overseas helps draw folks to you for longer visits. An interesting place to visit? Cheap and easy proximity to a continent of exciting tourist opportunities? Free lodging on their trip? Yessir!

Sledding Colorado
Family sledding.
Expat life also helps you prioritize time with distant loved ones, maximizing the chances you get. Our trip home a few weeks ago allowed us ten full days, and parts of two other days, in Colorado. That's longer than any of our previous holiday trips.

Counting their upcoming trip to visit us next summer, we'll have seen Kate's sisters and their families for at least four weeks, and as much as seven or eight weeks, over the course of two years. That's far more than the one, or at best two, weeks we likely would have seen them if we hadn't moved overseas.

Simulated earthquake in a dinosaur museum
Tectonic shifts at a dinosaur museum.
Race back to the car
Racing back to the car from the playground.
We moved across an ocean, but doubled or tripled our time spent with them. Chew on that.


  1. Thank you so much for this blog post! I'm new to the blogging world and really enjoying what I'm finding :) So I'm happy to have come across this one <3 I'm interested in visiting Scotland myself in a couple years and when I saw that you come from Raleigh, I couldn't believe it! Small world, I currently live about an hour outside of Raleigh :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post! Scotland is a beautiful and fascinating place to visit (and live). Hopefully you'll have a chance to experience it someday.

  2. I don't know about you all, but I am ready for you and your four huge suitcases and carseat and assorted carry-ons to make a return visit! Grammar

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